Returning To Work After 2 Years

Three years ago, after getting back from a trip that involved hiking in California and Oregon, my body began to go haywire. I had struggled with health issues on and off for over the last 10 years, but I was always able to function. Now, I had no idea what was going on- I started getting flu-like symptoms that lingered, my digestion got worse, and I became unable to ignore the fatigue. I had constant sinus issues and headaches. I was working as a speech-language pathologist in a school at the time. I had a 70 minute commute that involved buses and trains, and I worked on the 5th floor, which meant that I went up and down 5 flights of stairs every 30 minutes dropping kids off and picking them up. Many of the students I worked with were emotionally disturbed and had learning disabilities, and I had to be extremely energetic and animated in order to hold their attention (which came naturally but was getting harder and harder as my health started to decline.)

As the year went on, new symptoms started popping up- swollen and painful lymph nodes, brain fog, even more debilitating fatigue, exercise intolerance (I was doing yoga 3-4 times a week, but had to completely cut it out), anxiety, depression, panic attacks, lightheadedness, insomnia, chills, sweats, rashes, fevers. They would come in cycles, so I would feel “OK” (a very relative term!) for a couple of weeks, and then crash for a couple of weeks. I was always the type of person who would never call out sick, so I pushed myself to go to work when I could barely get out of bed on the bad days. My mom worked at the same school at the time, and I needed to take naps in her office every day during my lunch and prep periods. I was trying so hard to act as if nothing was wrong in front of my students and co-workers, but I would come home every day and cry, unable to move. In the meantime, I was going to doctor after doctor trying to figure out what was wrong with me. I was diagnosed with “stress,” Fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (the doctor who told me that said that the only thing to do was go on vacation for 6 months and then see if I feel better!), Candida, and “unknown viral or bacterial infection.” I did endless blood work, nerve tests, MRI’s, and vitamin injections. Apparently no doctor could figure out or agree what was going on, and I was frustrated that I felt as if I was dying but could not get any answers.

At the end of the summer, I started seeing a new acupuncturist for my symptoms. I was hoping a combination of acupuncture and herbs would help my symptoms, at least to the point where I could function. After listing all of my health issues for over an hour and a half, one of the first things she said to me was “Have you been tested for Lyme Disease?” Apparently I had the same symptoms as her other Lyme patients. I remembered I had been tested over 10 years ago by a neurologist, but it came back negative. She explained that the testing was complicated and told me where to go to get tested and treated if I needed to.

Around this time, I was terrified about going back to work. At this point, I noticed a pattern- my symptoms flared up randomly, but they always flared up after doing any sort of exercise, traveling, or not sleeping well. During the summer, I was sleeping almost 10 hours a day and taking naps.  How would I be able to get up at 5:45am, have a long commute to school, and then go up and down stairs all day? I had always worked after school too- could I continue that? Setting up my room on the first day would require a lot of physical movement alone.

I went back to work and sure enough, my body crashed after the first day. I came home feeling worried and defeated. I was mad at my body for not working the way I wanted it to. For the first month, I had no choice but to call out sick several times a week, because I literally couldn’t get out of bed. On days I went to work, I could barely move. I remember constantly feeling as if I was going to pass out, and I kept having to pretend to drop things on the floor while walking with students so I could crouch down and take breaks.

Around this time, my friend put me in touch with Jesse Ruben (an awesome person and a super talented musician- you should check out his music!) who had Lyme. He called me, and after telling him what was going on, the first thing he said was “You aren’t crazy.” He told me his story, which sounded very similar to mine. He told me about where he went to get diagnosed and treated, and it was the same place my acupuncturist recommended! He was completely better and running marathons. I got off the phone feeling validated and hopeful that I could finally get diagnosed and treated properly.

I made an appointment, and was first diagnosed with Lyme, Bartonella, viral infections, and parasites. I was only able to go to work a couple of days a week at that point. Deep down, I knew I needed to go on medical leave, but I was fighting it. I felt guilty, as if I would be letting people down by not showing up to work- my students, my coworkers, and myself. As sick as I felt before I started treatment, I felt a zillion times worse right after starting (which I didn’t know was even possible.) The herxing was intense! After calling out sick for almost 6 weeks straight, I finally made the decision to go on medical leave that January.

Making the decision to go on medical leave was difficult, but I ended up learning a lot about myself. I was always a people-pleaser, putting other people’s needs ahead of my own. I was giving all my energy to other people, and had trouble taking time for myself. This decision forced me to make myself a priority and put all my energy into healing. I was always a go-go-go person (I always felt as if I needed to be doing something in order to be productive), and now I was forced to slow down and rest.

I am not 100% better, but I have made a lot of progress in the last couple of years. I made the decision to go back to work part-time in September, which is exciting and terrifying at the same time. I am looking forward to seeing my coworkers and students, having a routine, and getting a salary and health insurance, but I’m worried that it may be too much for my body, especially since my last experiences at work were traumatic. Here is how I am preparing to go back:

1)     Visualization. The mind is so powerful! I am visualizing myself feeling healthy, vibrant, and energetic, getting through the day easily.

2)     Journaling. Whenever fears come up, I start journaling to get them out. It helps me sort through and make sense of all of my worries.

3)     Letting go of control. If I go back to work, and can’t handle it, it’s OK. I can’t force that. I have learned to always listen to my body. I will figure out something else.

4)     Honoring my emotions. I am feeling a lot of fear and self-doubt come up. Instead of trying to ignore them, or push them away, I am accepting them. It's a normal response since this is such a big change for me. 

5)     Meditation. This helps me calm my mind and body down.

6)     Focusing on the positive. I have students that are still asking about me, and they will be so happy to see me. I know I have the support of my coworkers and supervisor and can be open and honest with them about my health. And I have the most amazing family, friends, doctors and healers who are extremely supportive and who are making this transition easier for me.

And I keep reminding myself that I am lucky to be in the place where I could even consider going back to work (this wasn’t even an option in the past couple of years!)